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21 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 4:15am

US welcomes Israel-Palestine ceasefire, but Democratic divisions remain

Differences between the party leadership and its progressive flank are growing ever more prominent.

By Emily Tamkin

Israel’s security cabinet voted to accept an unconditional ceasefire with Hamas late Thursday (20 May). The announcement came after 11 days in which Israeli strikes on Gaza killed 230 Palestinians, rockets from Gaza killed 12 Israelis, and neighbours turned against neighbours in mixed cities across Israel.  

It is too soon to say whether the ceasefire will hold – on Friday, Israeli forces, which reported Palestinians had thrown rocks and petrol bombs at officers, stormed and injured Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem – but news of the ceasefire was welcomed by the US administration. 

“I believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live in safety and security and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy,” US president Joe Biden said after being informed of the ceasefire by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  

But for many in his party, Biden’s response to the violence has been insufficient, and a ceasefire doesn’t end the conversation. Younger Democrats in particular took a contrasting position to the Biden administration’s statements of support for Israel (and one not so young Democrat, Bernie Sanders, introduced a resolution of disapproval in the Senate on arms sales to Israel worth hundreds of millions of dollars). 

This shift in the Democratic Party on Israel has been under way for years. Consider, for example, the Obama era. There were the famously bad relations between Barack Obama and Netanyahu, who even used a speech to Congress in 2015 to rebuke the then US president. There was the fact that, despite warnings that Democrats would lose American Jewish voters because Obama pursued the Iran nuclear deal, the party did not (the majority of American Jews supported the agreement). There was the advent in 2007 of J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group that serves as a kind of mainstream critical alternative to the more hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and, in 2014, of IfNotNow, a group of young progressive Jews that was set up after the last Gaza war.  

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The trend continued under Trump. Netanyahu and Trump’s mutual embrace of one another opened up space for liberal American Jews and Democrats more broadly to criticise Netanyahu’s Israel. There was, and is, Black Lives Matter, arguably the defining political movement of this generation, which sees the Palestinian struggle as an extension of its own. There are high-profile American Jews who have moved from liberal Zionism to calling for one state. And there are Palestinians and Palestinian Americans themselves who have spent years challenging mainstream American narratives of unflinching, uncritical support for Israel.  

Furthermore, there is now a new generation of voters, and, similarly, a new generation of politicians. In the House of Representatives, there are relatively new members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Marie Newman and Jamaal Bowman, all of whom challenged established members in primaries and won, and all of whom have been fiercely critical of Israel. Ocasio-Cortez’s fellow “squad” members — Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, who is herself Palestinian American — all spoke out against the Israeli government during the latest conflict and all moved to stop bomb sales to Israel this week.  

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But that is not what Democratic and indeed American leadership did. The Biden administration may have reportedly chided Netanyahu privately, but publicly it mostly stuck to the usual US lines about Israel’s right to defend itself. At the United Nations, the US repeatedly blocked a statement condemning Israeli military action.  

Any meaningful change in Israel-Palestine will happen at the UN, and because of Israelis and Palestinians. But the United States is a close ally of and major military aid provider to Israel. Its positions are not irrelevant.  

And while the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has long been known to be in a different place to its leader – consider, for example, that Biden was reported to have blocked the word “occupation” from being in the Democratic platform in the summer of 2020 – the difference had been in the background. It is now at the fore, and unlikely to quietly recede.